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April 11, 2008
Paul Gipe

10,000 miles per gallon of gasoline: Shell's Ecomarathon

On Aprill 11 and 12, 2008 teams from highschools, colleges, and universities from across the continent were scrambling in the garages at the Fontana raceway preparing their cars for the Shell's Ecomarathon.

The streamlined and super lightweight vehicles, most three-wheeled, were hoping to take home a $10,000 prize for the most fuel-efficient car on the track.

The target this year: 2,000 mpg. They need that to best last year's winner.

In 2007, the team from Rose-Hulman came in second with 1,637 mpg.

This year the engineering students from Terre Haute, Indiana were franticly trying to get their entry ready for the track. It was mid morning and the students were still spinning wrenches on the chassis and wielding their volt-ohm meters like samurai swords. "There's a lamp on this board, how much does it draw," said one. The exasperated answer from another harried student was, "3/4 amp".

To boost performance, or in this case improve efficiency, the students opted for a fancy new engine controller, and, well, all was not going according to plan.

Rose-Hulman was not alone. Purdue's solar car entry was stalled in the pit with troublesome solar cells while students held the aerodynamically-shaped fiberglass shell down in a furious Santa Ana. Purdue's solar car was one of only two at the track.

There were also a few fuel cell entries as well.

Most cars were powered by internal combustion engines that would have been hard-pressed on a leaf blower.

The ecomarathon itself is a circuit of 7 laps covering just under 10 miles. Drivers must complete the course in less than 40 minutes. Then they exit and have the fuel remaining in their tiny fuel bottles measured. The objective: the lowest fuel consumption.

Drivers were mostly women. Rose-Hulman had two women drivers on standby, should they get their car running. One Rose-Hulman driver was Bethany Brisco from Alexandria, Indiana. With helmet, gloves, fire-retardant suit, and shoes, Ms. Brisco was ready for her debut on the track.

Shell, the ecomarathon's sponsor, stressed safety to all the crews. Each car was equipped with its own fire extinguisher, and clearly marked "kill" switches on each entry. Crews were told to always wear safety glasses when working on the cars, good life lessons for the students.

Though the vehicles' average speed on the course is only 40 mph, the low-slung cars, most only inches off the track, offer only the most basic protection. An ambulance crew stood by.

The Rose-Hulman team will have its work cut out for it to compete in Shell's European Ecomarathon. Last year's winner reached 10,000 miles per gallon. But first they will have to get their car running.

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